Interview by Grinnell Magazine with David Simmons '88
The Grinnell Magazine: How did you become aware of the needs of the Haitian agricultural workers in the Dominican Republic?
David Simmons: It really was a matter of serendipity that I became aware of the needs of Haitian agricultural workers, or braceros (as they're know locally). My wife, Kimberly Eison Simmons '89 and I had been vacationing on the North Coast, in a place called Cabarete, with Dominican friends. Rather offhandedly, one of them asked if we'd like to visit a 'batey'? 'What's a batey?' we asked. 'It's better if we just show you,' they responded. So, off we went, driving through a veritable sea of sugar cane. From a distance, cane is beautiful; so tall, so green as it sways in the breeze. It was breathtaking. As we were soon to find out, however, its beauty masks the great human suffering that maintains it. Prior to visiting this batey, of course, I knew that sugar cane was grown in the Dominican Republic and that at one time it was their major export. I also knew that one of their largest markets was the United States. Like many Americans, I enjoyed the relatively cheap price of sugar, especially in refreshments, candy, and the like. I knew very little about how sugar was grown and the living and working conditions of those who labored in the cane fields. And suddenly, in this one visit, my eyes were opened to the reality of it all. Through a clearing in the cane, I saw what looked like a small community of ramshackle homes-bits of wood debris, layers of odd pieces nailed together over many years. A few lucky residents had cement block homes. The bright paint-sky blue, cotton candy pink, hunter green-adorning some stood in stark contrast to the rusty, decaying brown of others. Heaping mounds of garbage were everywhere: food wrappers, broken bottles, paper, and in some places, human feces and urine. Flies buzzed from the garbage to someone's plate, to someone's face, and back to the garbage. Children without shoes or pants or underwear splashed through large puddles of dirty water. Others sat-again without underwear-on the filthy ground playing marbles, or dominoes, or checkers made from old bottle tops. A quick glance at the hands of many of the men revealed new or old wounds inflicted by a stray machete strike-a common occupational hazard with cane cutting, especially with new recruits. After what seemed like a very short time, our friends turned the car toward the entrance. Though we were only there a short time, the place and the people made quite an impression on me. While I'd already worked in places like rural West Africa, I'd never seen such poverty, such misery before. It was stunning. This place evoked the true meaning of Franz Fanon's famous phrase, 'the wretched of the earth'?
GM: Tell us about the living conditions faced by these Haitian workers. Do they face prejudice and discrimination because of their nationality, etc.?
DS: In that first visit to the batey on the North Coast, we saw no evidence of facilities for disposing of human waste, such as toilettes or latrines. There was no potable water, no electricity. Homes-if you could call them that-had been divided and subdivided so many times, people lived on top of one another. Living space was tight. Later, I would read that living and working conditions on the bateys were some of the worst in the Dominican Republic. I wondered what, if anything, was being done for this destitute population, so I began to investigate. I learned that there were more than 300 bateys spread across the country and that there were a handful that were receiving some kind of aid-usually from American-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Where I live, in the Cibao region, there was little being done. I toured many of the bateys in the region, talking with residents, surveying the conditions. Although it was possible to make some distinctions between bateys, the differences were best understood as variations in the degree of poverty and deprivation rather than its presence or absence. Levels of service development and infrastructure were low and the institutional presence of both government and non-government agencies was limited. Livelihood opportunities (outside of agriculture and construction work) were limited, as well. It was after this tour that I decided to work with Batey Cristo Rey*. Its location on a main road made it easy to get to by public transportation. More than 20 housing structures hug the well-traveled Dajabon Road-a stretch of highway that brings thousands of Haitians every year, usually illegally, into the Dominican Republic. The rest of the community extends back toward the Sanjan River that, despite its pollution, remains a favorite place to cool off in the sweltering heat of the day. The banks of the river serve the dual purpose of garbage dump and open-air latrine. The sharp, acrid smell of urine suffuses the air. One must always walk with one's eyes on the ground here. There are some latrines, but there are not enough to meet the needs of the entire community. The northern border of the batey is the vast expanse of rice fields where many men in the community work, bent over for hours a day in knee-deep water ridden with pesticides and mosquitoes. Due south of this area is a large 'play,' doubling as both soccer and baseball field. Its rock-strewn surface quickly eats through cleats and tennis shoes and so it's always surprising to see small children, shoeless, participating in soccer games that last for hours. The cluster of homes sprinkled around the play are primarily rented or owned by ethnic Dominicans. This is considered the nice side of town. Homes are not as densely packed together as they are in other parts-that is, primarily Haitian parts-of the community. Rather than the neighbors' ramshackle homes, the view from here is the emerald ocean of rice that ends with a section of large palms at the autopista, the Dajabon Road. Beyond this sit the cloud-veiled hills that separate the Cibao Valley from the sprawling sugar plantations and tourist destinations of t he northern coast. With regard to their treatment, many members of this community admit to suffering great discrimination and mistreatment. For example, many will say that not so long ago 'redadas,' or raids by the police, were common. These raids were, and still are, carried out under the pretext of looking for illegal aliens. The subtext was/is usually commercial in nature: plantation owners, in need of a cheap labor source, will commission local authorities to round up workers. You can pay a bribe and, thus, be left alone. But the paltry 70 pesos (about U.S. $1.60) made daily by most agricultural workers in this community goes toward food, school uniforms, or badly needed medicines. There isn't much left at the end of the day to pay a bribe. And so when the police come, people are carried away to someone's cane, coffee, or rice field. Or back to Haiti. On rare occasions, some are carried off to their graves. As one young man told me once, 'They can come and get me, take me into the bush and kill me. And no one will care.'
GM: Out of all the needs these people must have, how did you focus on the need for a community center? What makes this the primary need in your view?
DS: Batey Cristo Rey is a community of people that lacks most material resources. However, they have an abundance of human resources-resources that really still remain untapped. The youth of the community, for example, have a real thirst for knowledge. They are constantly asking me for books-in Spanish, English, French, and Kreyol-and learning materials. There is also a high level of social organization in this community. It boasts two very active community organizations: the Organization of Haitian Workers and Valiant Women. However, there is no suitable place for these groups to have meetings. Also, many people in this community do not have access to medical care. Though born in the Dominican Republic-and, thus, Dominican citizens-many were never issued birth certificates. In the eyes of the law, these people do not exist. They do not have national identification cards (cedulas), stating their citizenship/nationality and so they may be subject to forced deportation to Haiti if stopped by local officials. Likewise, because they were born in the DR, they are not recognized by Haiti either. In essence, they are stateless people. In terms of medical access, this means many cannot venture off the batey to seek medical care, lest they be stopped by the police. The desire for a place that helps meet these needs has been a constant theme in conversations with the community. The center will provide and help coordinate many of the services that currently do not exist on the batey.
GM: I liked the story you told in your application about Milanda St. Julien. Tell us about her, and how you think the community center will help her realize her potential.
DS: For me, Milanda represents the promise of this community. She's smart, levelheaded, and a natural leader. She has nine brothers and sisters, half of whom are much younger. As might be expected, she helps take care of them in addition to other chores around the house and her work as captain of the girls' soccer team. There are many Milandas in this community, however, a multitude of youth with unrealized potential. There is no place in the community, or the surrounding environs, to find and read books or other educational materials. They have no place to call their own, to have meetings. Having a place that is functional and pleasing to the eye will, I hope, inspire and prepare the Milandas of this community for a brighter future.
GM: How integral are you to the success of this project? At some point, will it go on without you being involved in the day-to-day operations?
DS: Of course, my pride tells me I am an essential part of the success of this project and that nothing could be done without me! In truth, the people in the community with whom I work are very capable and have a great deal of self-determination. They've just never been given much of a chance. While I am considered a valuable member of the community, I see myself as a facilitator of sorts. You could call what I do 'pragmatic solidarity,' working with the community to help them develop solutions to the challenges with which they're faced. The community is more than prepared to handle the day-to-day operations and maintenance of the center. As I've already said, there is a great deal of social organization and leadership within the community. I will, of course, help out with the initial training of personnel, etc., but the community already has the infrastructure for carrying this out.
GM: What else would you like to tell our readers about this project?
DS: Well, first I'd like to say that it is only through the generosity of the Wall Award and the selection committee that this project is possible. Also, this is a project that does not have an end date. It will be an ongoing effort to better the lives of this severely marginalized group of people. My wife, Kimberly, and I have founded a community-based organization, Zanmi Batey ('Friend of the Batey' in Haitian Kreyol), to help bring continued aid to this and other batey communities in the Cibao region. If readers are interested in learning more about the plight of Haitian agricultural workers in the DR and/or contributions to Zanmi Batey, they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This is a pseudonym used to protect the privacy of the community and its residents.